In February, the U.S. Department of Education announced its intention to rescind the “Free Inquiry Rule,” established in 2020 by then Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. According to the rule, universities that receive federal funding cannot deny any right, benefit, or privilege to student organizations simply because they are religious in nature. The common-sense rule was designed to fix the increasingly common practice of campus authorities unjustly pressuring and discriminating against religious student groups.
For example, during the 2014-15 academic year, the California State University system withdrew recognition from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because it required its leaders to hold Christian beliefs. In fact, according to a Christian Legal Society fact sheet, similar incidents occurred at the University of Arizona, University of Northern Colorado, the University of Florida, University of Georgia, Boise State University, University of Illinois, Indiana University, the University of Michigan, and others. One religious organization with multiple chapters was also forced to seek legal counsel regarding its presence at 16 different public colleges and universities in the last four years.
In 2021, a Ratio Christi chapter at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was denied funding to invite a Christian philosopher for a lecture unless it included “another spokesperson with a different ideological perspective.” In a lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, Ratio Christi argued that the university failed to follow this policy with other groups, but instead spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars in student fees each year to pay for speakers … on topics like sexual orientation, gender identity, reproductive justice, social justice, police reform, and political activism.”
Religious groups who legally push back on anti-religious discrimination on college campuses are often successful in either changing the minds of administrators or, when necessary, winning in court. Still, too many students and student groups are intimidated from living out their faith on campus. According to the Christian Legal Society, “Often students don’t want to talk publicly about problems they encounter because they are concerned about the repercussions to their group and to the relationships they are seeking to build with administrators.”
The 2020 Open Inquiry rule was designed to give student religious organizations a more fairly represented playing field and universities clearer guidelines for protecting religious expression. In the announcement that the rule would be repealed, the Biden administration claimed that the regulations are too burdensome and confusing, that the First Amendment is strong enough to protect students’ religious freedom, and that there is no evidence anyone has benefitted from the 2020 rule. Well, that depends on what you mean by “anyone” and “benefit.”
In fact, the Biden Department of Education admits they have yet to receive any complaints regarding the rule. Their real problem with the rule has to do with worldview. In their view, religious liberty is too expansive as is, and ensuring it on publicly funded campuses presents a threat to more “marginalized” groups.
Protecting religious expression is vital, not just for Christians, but for everyone. Conscience rights are pre-political rights and provide the foundation on which every other liberty is built. Protecting that foundation on campuses requires, at minimum, allowing religious student groups to meet on campus, to use allocated student funding like every other group, to choose leaders who adhere to the stated beliefs and values that define the group, and to think and speak as freely as other students.
Please, take a minute to show support for these groups and these courageous students. Like all federal agencies, the Department of Education is required to publish proposed rule changes for public comment before they are implemented. This ensures at least a degree of public debate and government accountability.
Our friends at the Christian Legal Society have made it easy to submit a comment to the Department of Education. Please, go to regulations.gov to submit a comment, but only after reviewing the Christian Legal Society fact sheet at ChristianLawStudents.org. The deadline to comment on this new rule is Friday, March 24.
It will only take about five minutes to remind the Department of Education that religious liberty matters on campus. It will take a lot longer to remind our neighbors, teachers, and university systems of the same truth, and even longer to recover this freedom, which is a public good for everyone, once it is lost.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
Publication date: March 16, 2023
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Vladimir Vladimirov
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.
John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.